November 3, 2021
Dylan Burns on Providence, Fate, and Dualism in Antiquity
If, like Milton’s devils (Paradise Lost, Book II), when confronted with the problems of ‘Fix’d fate, free will, foreknowledge absolute’, you find yourself ‘in wandering mazes lost’, you should speak with Dylan Burns.
In this two-part interview we get into the subject-matter of Burns’ recent book Did God Care? Providence, Dualism, and Will in Later Greek and Early Christian Philosophy. The book is roughly tripartite (not unlike the Gnostic Tripartite Tractate, which comes up a lot in Part II), looking at Providence, Dualism, and Will. In Part I we discuss the first two, Providence – the idea of a divinely, created order in the universe which works for the good – and Dualism – the idea that evil is, in some way, a real thing, and therefore, understandably causes problems for any idea of providence. Topics discussed in this wide-ranging interview include:
- An introduction suggesting that lovers of western esotericism should care about providence and similar ideas,
- Some philosophic background, including discussions of important source-texts (Plato’s dialogues, and especially the Timæus, Phædrus, and Myth of Er; Aristotle’s Nicomachæan Ethics, and the Stoics), and
- Tricky ideas like ‘what is up to us’ (τὸ ἐφ’ ἡμῖν), Compatibilism, and the ‘Lazy Argument’,
- The ‘multi-tier’ or ‘conditional fate’ model of providence, fate, and human freedom developed in Middle Platonism,
- The important ‘Persian Great King’ model of divine administration of Providence and Fate presented in the Pseudo-Aristotelean De mundo,
- The model of ‘mitigated’ or ‘attenuated dualism’ arising in the Abrahamic thought of the Hellenistic and far, far beyond, drawing on apocalyptic texts, most importantly the Book of the Watchers, now known from 1 Enoch, which posits genuine evil forces at work in the universe, and
- The weird and wonderful (?) things that happen when both of these currents of thinking about providence and fate are brought together in Gnostic texts like On the Creation of the World, the Trimorphic Protennoia, and the Apocryphon of John, wherein we find peculiar, human-centred models of providence which do not encompass much of the world at all beyond the plēroma and the individual ‘knower’ or gnostic.
Dylan Burns is Assistant Professor of the History of Esotericism in Late Antiquity at the University of Amsterdam’s HHP. He is an editor of Brill’s Nag Hammadi and Manichaean Studies series. His many publications deal with ancient Gnosticism, Platonistic and Platonising religious movements, Platonism and ancient philosophy more generally, as well as the wider field of western esotericism studies. His most recent book at the time of writing is Did God Care? Providence, Dualism, and Will in Later Greek and Early Christian Philosophy.
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Apuleius, Aristotle, Astral Gods, Astrology, Bardaisan, daimones, Enoch, Fate, Gnosticism, Late Platonism, Metempsychosis, Middle Platonism, Plato, Providence, Ptolemy, Stoicism, Theurgy
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